Father John Misty's latest album will have you in stitches and leave you wearing them.Sub Pop, 2017
10 / 10
We’re all just awful. And by “all,” I mean every currently existing or deceased human. However, we could be at our most annoying stage yet in existence. The rampant narcissism born from social media. Our hideous glee in firing people for mistakes they apologize for. Also, our inability to engage in a civil debate. People draw lines in the sand as conservatives and liberals. Even older generations versus the millennials. We’re broken as a species, but we’ve always been broken. Nothing can fix that no matter who has the best idea how to on Facebook or Twitter. Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, knows this, and he sees the humor behind it. Pretty dark humor, right? Really it’s a tragedy, but the inescapable contradiction is what makes it Pure Comedy. It’s all funny when you sit and think about it.
Or now, you can listen to it. Father John Misty’s music has always been good. Earbuddy named Fear Fun its best album of 2012. However, the follow-up I Love You, Honeybear was even better. Now, he tops himself again, maybe even peaking in the process with Pure Comedy. His latest album is 75 minutes. Yes, it takes a commitment, but many great albums do. Think back to Swans’ To Be Kind or Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Both of those albums were journeys, but they were worth the time. Honestly, Pure Comedy flies by in its runtime. Tillman’s lyrics are smart, witty and even comedic. But they can also be mean and condescending. At this point, Tillman floods blog headlines as much as Kanye West. He has haters, and many of those people will declare this album pure shit. And some fans of Tillman are likely to agree.
Why? Because he attacks our ideals. He attacks our politics, religion, and lifestyles. Nothing is without Tillman’s brutal commentary. If he doesn’t mention it, then maybe he is saving it for his Soundcloud where he likes to upload his generic pop songs. That’s the thing; he even attacks himself along with the music industry. If you’re going to dish it, you have to be able to take it. Currently this is something that so few of us remember how to do. We only react with outrage rather than stop and think, ‘Maybe he or she is right and I’m wrong.’ Just to consider someone else’s feelings or beliefs would be an improvement. Maybe no one is right. It’s just another one of those little contradictions on Pure Comedy.
Each song here is good enough to have its own essay. The lyrics are ripe with fruit for the picking. But pay too much attention to them, and you’ll overlook the instrumentation. It sticks with the orchestral arrangements of I Love You, Honeybear. But everything sounds bigger if that’s possible. Tillman may be known foremost as a folk singer/songwriter from his early solo work and his stint in Fleet Foxes. But as Father John Misty, his music is too much for a single label. If it really needs a label, then “grandiose” works best. However, Pure Comedy should be grandiose. This is seemingly Tillman’s magnum opus.
It’s only fitting then that for this album to really work, it has to start at the very beginning. The album’s opening title track does just that. It returns to the birth of mankind. Tillman details how are instincts are formed. How are gender roles are determined. How religion confuses but seemingly gives us meaning. It’s all there, presented in Tillman’s sardonic wit. He lambastes the human species; though, he admits in its closing line, “Each others all we got.” The contradiction of human nature is a comedy. The darkest of comedy that we don’t want to laugh at.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to connect with other people when there are so many distractions. A chief distraction being technology, which serves as the inspiration to “Total Entertainment Forever”. In the song, the future’s endless possibilities are available via VR headsets. This means celebrity sex is now feasible. It means interacting with our dreams, seeing them realized, and forgetting about reality. Interaction between family and friends is obsolete. Tillman muses that eventually our race will be discovered in the future; though, we have all died smiling from satisfying our selfish whims. Except our smile is contrasted with an image of us as frail skin and bones bodies.
So what happens when we get rid of technology? And a government that provides structure but also too many headaches? “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution” explores this idea. Humanity decides to fight back against technology and return to its primitive roots. There is no longer a fear that the environment is in danger. Advertising no longer exists to annoy us. Still, it’s unfathomable to realize how dependent we are on our creature comforts until they’re no longer here. However, Tillman suggests that following such a path would only re-start a new cycle. One where its citizens work to re-create the discarded comforts to make life easier and less boring.
All right, so at this point, it seems like Tillman has all the answers. He’s Mr. Smartypants, right? Well, he’s not afraid to point the finger at himself. Sure, “Ballad of the Dying Man” is a response to the critics, the wannabe news columnists, the average Facebook and Twitter users giving their commentary on every single thing. He directs it toward anyone trying to be the smartest person in the room. Consequently, it’s almost an indictment of Tillman himself. After all, he’s playing the part of the smartest person in the world with all of the commentary on Pure Comedy.
This indictment carries over into the 13-minute slow-burning but totally worth it “Leaving LA”. It serves as a meditation on the music industry, the apocalypse, and even a time when he nearly died as a child. The song tears down the fourth wall repeatedly. But Tillman is aware of how this song is going to come off to some listeners as he sings, “Oh great, that’s just what we all need/ Another white guy in 2017/ Who takes himself so goddamn seriously.” So he’s an asshole for abusing generic bands, right? Heaven forbid that we expect more from our musicians. At least Tillman is attempting something with more meaning and more complexity on Pure Comedy. That’s no laughing matter.